November 2009, Damien Hirst @ The Wallace Collection

Damien Hirst; Requiem, White Roses and Butterflies, 2008; 150 x 230 cm; Oil on canvas; Courtesy Damien Hirst and The Wallace Collection
Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd, Copyright Damien Hirst. All rights reserved, DACS 2009


Damien Hirst: No Love Lost, Blue Paintings
The Wallace Collection 
Hertford House
Manchester Square
London, W1U 3B
14 October 2009 through 24 January, 2010

No Love Lost, Blue Paintings, Blue in The Face
The British press has finally got what it was waiting for: the opportunity to denigrate Damien Hirst’s work to the ground; again. This has of course been done before, however, Hirst’s current exhibition of paintings at the Wallace Collection in London has triggered a rather singular stream of ferocious criticism. One that is much more embarrassing than the paintings it tries to ridicule.

Damien Hirst’s recent effort is a carefully orchestrated and provocatively staged event that is being completely misunderstood by the general press. The Wallace Collection is no common exhibiting space, it is one with a great history: home to one of Europe’s finest collections of works of art, paintings, furniture, arms and armour, porcelain and displays many other “masterpieces” such as two paintings by Titian, four Rembrandts, three works by Rubens, four Van Dycks, twenty-two Canalettos, nineteen Bouchers, Teniers, and Frans Hals amongst others. It is indeed considered a temple of “old masters” and one that Hirst, in the eyes of the press, has here desecrated. The air is blue with oaths.

A few days prior to the opening of the show, the news that Hirst paid £250,000 to make changes to two of the galleries at the Wallace Collection by applying gilding on the ceiling, a refurbished, lighter floor and £60,000 worth of blue silk wallpaper commissioned from Prelle of Lyon (Marie Antoinette's silk manufacturer of choice), made the headlines.

Over the past 15 years, Damien Hirst’s career has been built on works of art created by teams of assistants, in a fashion reminiscing of Andy Warhol’s factory. Animals in formaldehyde, cabinets of display, gigantic sculptures, spin and butterfly-paintings have defined the eccentric career of an artist who, like Warhol, can be considered one of the best pop artists of all time. However, it is known that the British press finds immense pleasure in building a star and then destroying it when it reaches its highest peak.

In June 2007, Hirst created For the Love of God, a £50m platinum skull completely covered by 8,601 diamonds - the most expensive piece of contemporary art ever created. This work, in a way represented Hirst’s career’s pinnacle, as the skull was instantly snapped up by an anonymous collector for its asking price. Many art critics found this just too irritating to bear.

What next? Damien went basic and returned to painting. The new 25 paintings on display at the Wallace Collection are interesting, not so much for what they are, but for what they represent within the career of the artist, the role the artist is taking on and the context in which they are exhibited. No Love Lost is essentially a pastiche of Damien Hirst’s past body of work, dressed in references of Francis Bacon’s paintings from the 40’ and 50’s and with a hint of Picasso’s blue period. In these contemporary memento-mori, skulls are accompanied by shark jaws, butterflies, dots and ashtrays. This is Hirst writing his own mythology through a consistent self-referential act based on the most intimate of all art-media: painting. By producing these works, Hirst has willingly and knowingly entered a space of vulnerability. “A man and his canvas” must surely be frighteningly quiet place for the richest living artist whom in his studio is constantly surrounded by teams of specialists.

Many of the paintings on show present a subject surrounded by a multitude of crossing light blue lines and deep dark backgrounds, building intricate structures, strongly reminiscing of Francis Bacon’s work. During the 40’s, the painter explored previously uncharted territories within the genre of portraiture as he defined a highly original and personal approach that equally shocked and charmed. At the core of his newly defined aesthetic lies an abrasive level of distortion and the use of vertical and diagonal brushstrokes arranged to define the rigid structure of a cage surrounding his subjects.

What is the function of the cage within the syntagmatic structure of the painting, one may ask? The bars alluded to universal existentialist entrapments contingent to the metaphysics of human condition as well as to the limitations imposed by the public persona to which one subscribes or to which one is relegated to by society. It is here worth remembering that according to Bacon’s Nietzchian atheism, which he stuck to, right until the end of his life “the body itself is a cage”.

Having considered all this, Hirst’s choice to “appropriate” Bacon is rather smart, as the "cages" in his paintings may refer to the artist’s own personal entrapments as a professional, what people make of his previous art (heavily referenced in the paintings) and as a result, of his persona as the richest living artist of our time. Does Hirst have the freedom to do with art what he pleases or is he kept captive by the ghost of his previous body of work?


Damien Hirst, Floating Skull, 2006; Oil on canvas; 101.9 x 76.7 cm; Courtesy Damien Hirst and The Wallace Collection;
Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd, Copyright Damien Hirst. All rights reserved, DACS 2009

Within the setting of the Wallace Collection, the works represent a welcome diversion from the permanent collection and Hirst has been very careful at contextualising his paintings with the other works on show. To make a connection clearer, Hirst has compiled a tour of works featured in the collection, which have been source of inspiration for his paintings, and has outlined a tour, which will take the viewer to explore a good number of “masterpieces” from different times and media in the collection. It is a rather interesting proposal, especially for those students and visitors who may have come here to look at Hirst’s work and that may not make the collection their first port-of-call when deciding to see art. This is contemporary art, making an effective effort to practically, and not jut conceptually engage with the past. An effort aimed at audiences of “non-classical art connoisseurs”. Have any of the reviews mentioned this effort in a somewhat positive light? Of course not, the majority of art reviewers out there enjoy the elitist values historically bound to the subject of art history and overvalue their “sophisticated knowledge”, secretly taking pleasure in the idea that they are part of an “elected minority”.

What is particularly interesting about this show is the amount of negative reviews it has received and the ferociousness with which reviewers have written about it. These responses, much more than the paintings by Hirst, reveal the current state of affair between the critics and the medium of painting.

Amongst the many negative reviews, one by Brian Sewell, published on the Evening Standard, really made me think. Sewell is clearly annoyed (to say the least) by the fact that Hirst is exhibited at the Wallace Collection and proceeds to explain that the artist’s works are incredibly distant from the quality of the “grand masters” of the collection. Really? Did Sewell go to the Wallace Collection to match Hirst dexterity with the brush and compare it to that of Canaletto and Hals? What a waste of time… He says “Were Hirst's canvases the work of a late teenager, we might take the random lines around the skulls as a clever allusion to the measuring-points of a sculptor of Canova's generation, or as an illusion of cracked glass, and forgive the ugly clumsiness of inexperienced execution; but Hirst is nearing his half-century and should have a far higher level of skill than this rough daubing, with which he degrades his master, Bacon”.

Regardless of the superfluous reference to Canova’s work, it is this connection between Hirst’s age and the level of expertise expected in return that I find rather troubling. What expertise? Has Sewell forgotten that the development of modern and contemporary art is largely based on the subversion and eradication of the notion of traditional skills as essential prerogative of “good art”? Here he is looking for Hirst’s brushstroke to reveal the confidence and ability of the “great masters”; a pointless quest. However, he is not the only one to approach the “old masters” perspective here and other reviews of the show go as far as criticising the Hirst’s brushstroke, describing it as “barely competent” or “naïve”. It is almost as if we were back to the mid ‘800 with the Academies of Beaux Arts judging the paintings of the Impressionists and despising them for not adopting the skilful handling of paint prescribed by the classical canon. Then the brushstroke became a major bone of contention, but it is through the visibility and expressive use of the brushstroke itself, the materiality of the paint, that modern art departed from the monotony of classicism in order to explore uncharted and challenging territories. I find it therefore rather hilarious that these “critics” look at Hirst’s work and try to match it to the “old master’s” skilful execution”.

Another review reads: “Either Hirst's technical skills don't match his conceptual ability (though some would dispute that he has even that), or he just doesn't know what he's doing with the paint”. It seems that art critics today have a very precise idea of what painting should be. However this idea seems to uncomfortably echo of a very conservative approach fond of “past glories”. I would very much like to know how these critics evaluate the wobbly lines of Cy Twombly, for instance.

Judging the quality of executions of the paintings merely reveals the deep desire these critics have to belittle Hirst’s work, not so much because it deserves so, but because Hirst is successful, effectively one of the most successful contemporary artists alive, and because he has had the audacity to exhibit these paintings amongst those of old masters... These critics forget that the Wallace Collection is a partner in crime here and that Hirst has not run in the gallery overnight to hang his paintings as an indoor Banksy. The museum is endorsing the event, but no review is questioning the Wallace Collection for doing so. It is all Hirst’s fault…

Ultimately, the reaction of the press reminds me of the reviews that Madonna’s records used to receive in the 80’s and 90’s (her career pinnacle). Confronted with the vastness of her commercial success and record breaking achievements, whilst secretly feeling deeply distressed by Madonna’s will to challenge and subvert the system (entirely to her own benefit) the critics could not find better strategy than to attack her poor vocal range, limited dance routines, shallow lyrics, denying in the light of these deficiencies any merit to the role she played in pop music, the context in which her music (videos) acted as a revolutionary aid and her overall impact on pop culture.

Like her, Hirst is a pop icon and as such, his work should be discussed within that framework. Art reviewers should learn from music reviewers who have at length struggled to make theirs the concept that comparing Beethoven to Madonna is a pointless task. It would be interesting to see art critics being capable of such conceptual and imaginative leaps too.

Keep painting Damien; make them blue in the face…


Damien Hirst; Skull with Ashtray and Lemon, 2006/07; Oil on canvas
Courtesy Damien Hirst and The Wallace Collection
Photography by Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd,
Copyright Damien Hirst. All rights reserved, DACS 2009


Giovanni Aloi

 Giovanni Aloi is an art historian in modern and contemporary art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sotheby’s Institute of Art New York and London, and Tate Galleries. He has curated art projects involving photography and the moving image is a BBC radio contributor, and his work has been translated into many languages. Aloi is Editor in Chief of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture

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